Welcome to New York Dir. Abel Ferrara

[Wild Bunch; 2015]

Styles: biopic, drama, cautionary tale
Others: Bad Lieutenant, Ms. 45, The Accused

Throughout his nearly 45 year career as a filmmaker, Abel Ferrara has spent a decent part of it examining (or exploiting, depending in part on your point of view) the shock and horror of rape and its aftermath. Whether it was a mute Zoë Lund’s terror/rage-inducing violations in 1981’s Ms. 45, or the brutal rape of a young nun which served as a fulcrum for his brilliant Bad Lieutenant (1992), Ferrara has solidified his reputation as someone who is not remotely shy when it comes to graphically portraying such vile and radically evil acts. While he’s only too happy to revel in explicit rape sequences in his films, he’s also demonstrably compelled to unequivocally damn rape as a crime which vehemently demands justice. Whereas his past explorations of physical and emotional sexual assault have tended toward the sensational, his latest film finds the aging director most keenly fascinated with the generally uneventful and banal actions of a rapist completely devoid of remorse or even a most basic understanding of why people might not be that into him raping them.

Brandishing a veil as thin as onion skin, Welcome to New York is Ferrera’s litigation-inducing biopic about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and poster boy for fabulously wealthy socialists around the world. DSK, who made waves in the international press for allegedly raping an immigrant maid at the Sofitel in Manhattan and was later cleared of his charges mainly because of a maddeningly inept prosecution team and a defense which really played up his victim’s status as an immigrant with criminal family members, has largely faded from public view. A one-time favorite to succeed Sarkozy as France’s prez, quite a few members of the left-leaning press were fairly quick to wonder aloud if the entire rape had been a set-up by the opposition party which — come on, not cool — was thrown into question when his semen was found on her maid outfit. It’s a sensational sequence of events, to be sure, but what’s so intriguing about this film is how Ferrara decides to deal with the seemingly mundane details of his grotesque character’s life, ignoring almost completely the larger societal implications of his terrible actions.

In the film, DSK’s name is changed to Devereaux, and he’s played achingly well by Gerard Depardieu. When we’re first introduced to this fading lothario, Ferrara chooses to focus on the character’s mammoth physical presence — Depardieu’s later-day weight gain is on full display, and it’s unsettling to watch how difficult it is for him to breathe normally while moving for any period of time. From the beginning we understand that Devereaux’s appetite for sex is as out of control as his weight, having kind of depressing threesomes with different groups of New York call girls and drinking the finest champagne and doing what we can only assume is pretty high quality cocaine. Everything’s terribly explicit and clinically shot, and it leaves you wondering exactly why it is Ferrara is showing so much sex in the film so early on.

My theory is that he sets up so much graphic nudity in the beginning so that the pivotal scene where Devereaux has his way with the maid the next morning is all the more brutal because you can’t see what’s happening. Contrasted with the full display of gross, emotionless bought sex that’s filled the night before, when this beast of a man almost perfunctorily and out of custom tries to force the maid to go down on him we can’t see much of what’s going on. It’s an uncomfortable scene to watch in general, but what makes it so particularly squirm-inducing is the non-plussed sigh Devereaux releases when the maid finally gets away. No anger, no guilt, just disappointment that something he wanted isn’t there any more.

The aftermath of the event follows pretty closely the actual events of the DSK case, and after a procedural montage of humiliations Devereaux undergoes while being processed by the NY Dept of Corrections we find him confined in an exquisite apartment in Manhattan, under house arrest while he’s tried for sexual assault. The economy of Ferrara’s storytelling in New York is impressive, a perfect example of which being Devereaux sitting alone in the dark, snorting and guffawing at the pivotal scene in Truffaut’s Bed and Board. For those unfamiliar, Jean-Pierre Leaud has been cheating on his young wife with an Asian neighbor, and when he comes home to find her suicidal in a full geisha getup, it’s anything but funny.

Welcome to New York is a bit disjointed and unwieldy, and it’s hard to say how much of that is attributable to the fact that Ferrara didn’t get final cut on this particular film, and it was edited presumably to avoid a lawsuit by DSK. Although that’s a shame, because the Frenchman’s going to sue Ferrara regardless. What we’re left with by the end of the film is a man who deludes himself into believing that he can do no wrong, and that his admitted sexual addiction is an excuse for forcing himself on others. Depardieu’s performance is fearless and nuanced, and it’s good to see him taking on such complex roles. We may never get to see the extended version of the film in the way that Ferrara wanted it cut, but this version, for all its flaws, is still a fascinating and ambitious release from one of cinema’s most enduring provocateurs.

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